Adults became less extroverted, open, agreeable and conscientious during the pandemic, a new study found.
The results, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, showed that the degree of change was roughly equivalent to a decade’s worth of average personality changes. Young adults in particular grew moodier, more emotional and more sensitive to stress in 2021 compared to years past, according to the study.
The researchers analyzed survey results from more than 7,100 U.S. adults from January 2021 to February 2022 and compared their responses to earlier in the pandemic — the period from March to December 2020 — as well as to responses from previous years.
The survey was based on the Big Five traits, a common way researchers evaluate personalities. Participants were scored according to their levels of neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.
During the 2020 period, the responses were fairly consistent with those gathered before Covid emerged. But the researchers saw significant changes during the 2021-2022 period, suggesting that the collective stress of the pandemic affected people's dispositions over time.
Past research has already demonstrated that personalities can change as we age or develop new habits like exercising. Often as people get older, they become less neurotic, extroverted and open, but more agreeable and conscientious, said Angelina Sutin, the study’s lead author and a professor at Florida State University.
But from 2021 to 2022, adults ages 64 and under saw declines in extroversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Adults under 30 also saw an increase in neuroticism in that period, though other age groups did not.
"Becoming more mature is declining in neuroticism and increasing in agreeableness and conscientiousness, and we see the opposite for younger adults in the second year of the pandemic," Sutin said.
Adults above age 65, however, didn't see significant personality changes relative to pre-pandemic years.
"The older you get, the more of a sense of identity you have, the more entrenched you are in your social roles. You know more who you are, so things are going to affect you less in some ways," said Rodica Damian, an associate professor of social psychology at the University of Houston, who wasn't involved in the research.
William Revelle, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, pointed out that the observed personality changes could also stem, in part, from other social and political events happening during the time period studied.
“There was an election. There was a riot. There were major shootings and major protests,” said Revelle, who was also not involved in the study.
But he added that although it's impossible to separate those influences from the effects of the pandemic, "Covid was one of the major stressors hitting everyone — that was the main thing that kept people home."
Will these personality changes last?
Past research has not found an association between exposure to natural disasters and personality changes. For example, one study suggested that for the most part, New Zealand residents’ personalities were relatively stable after the 2010-2011 Christchurch earthquakes. Damian's past research has also not found an overall change in personality traits among those affected by major storms like Hurricane Harvey.
But the authors of the new study said Covid's impact is different from that of a natural disaster.
"The coronavirus pandemic has affected the entire globe and nearly every aspect of life," they wrote.
Sutin said one possible reason personalities didn't seem to change at the start of the pandemic is that there was a more hopeful attitude in 2020.
"Early on in the pandemic, there was this emphasis on coming together and working together and supporting each other," which may have made people feel more emotionally stable, Sutin said. "That’s something that kind of fell apart in the second year."
Damian also noted that personalities don't change overnight, so it's not surprising that researchers noticed a difference after two years instead of one. For example, she said, someone might experience a gradual decline in extroversion if they avoided parties for two years.
"Suddenly your self-image has changed, your sense of identity has changed because you have just not gone to a party for so long that you’re not sure if you can do it anymore," Damian said.
Researchers aren't sure whether adults will revert to their old personalities as the pandemic's social and economic impacts fade.
"We captured these traits at one moment in time, so we don’t know whether these are lasting changes or whether they’re temporary," Sutin said.
Regardless, she said, she's worried about young adults, since their scores indicate that they could be at higher risk of mental health struggles, unhealthy exercise or eating habits, or heightened challenges at school or work.
Neuroticism "is a very consistent predictor of mental health outcomes like depression and anxiety," Sutin said. And conscientiousness, which declined among that age group, "is very important for educational and work outcomes, as well as relationships and physical health," she added.
Damian said it's common to see the most dramatic shifts in personality traits in adults between 18 and 25 years old, since that's when people generally take on new responsibilities and shift their lifestyles as they go to college or get their first jobs.
"If the changes in personality that they experienced have some kind of snowball effect because it's a critical developmental period, then they might still see disadvantages later on," Damian said.